Play Blues Fiddle Notes
Joe Craven gave a special presentation at the Mike Block String Camp on bluesy sounds. Yes, it was all about what blues sounds like. And he encouraged his listeners to make these sounds on the spot. It was a fascinating and powerful presentation, and I got to be part of it by being there.
He used his hands, his finger, his whole body to illustrate how to think of the sound changing in a spatial way. I believe it worked very well. He would sing a note and roll with it as he rolled his hand. He would let the sound fall off as his hand dropped. It was a very effective way of teaching the bluesy sounds by engaging more than just the ear.
He showed how to do the wide bluesy vibrato and said you could hold back until near the end of the note for good effect. One way of summing up his presentation is, how can we sound more like a vocalist when we play the fiddle? Whatever a vocalist does, we can do.
Maybe I should qualify that. Do you remember the part of the movie Get Shorty when the music producer is talking about a singer? “Yes, I know she can si-i-i-i-i-ing,” letting his voice go all over in a send up of current vocalist sound. Well, I’m not recommending that. That’s a little over the top for me and I don’t especially like that style.
Bluesy Notes Need No Vibrato
You can get a bluesy sound, even if you are classically trained. The first thing is to stop doing any vibrato. It doesn’t sound bluesy, does it? Many notes will sound better with a little slide into the note and a fall off at the end. Or just a little blues shake vibrato at the end. (This is the one where your finger actually moves a little up and down the neck of the violin.)
Major, minor or modal tonality is not a factor. You can get a bluesy sound in any key or mode. Bluesy notes work well in ballads, of course, as I wrote about recently, describing how I did the moan in Faded Love. And I believe I wrote about the blue wail I heard Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers do in Rights of Man, an Irish hornpipe. It was a surprise, but it totally worked. That’s major and minor-modal right there. It’s mostly a matter of taste or feeling and personal expression.
The up slides are a good start to key on for your blues notes. Be sure you have enough time to make the slide lazy, as they say. Really slow it down and don’t be in any hurry to get to the target pitch. You can even do this in an otherwise fast tune for special effect, when you allow yourself to play a given note for more than one beat. It’s very effective and makes you look and sound like a virtuoso.
Noting the Bluesy Dip
One of the blues note moves common in bluegrass, well not common, but used often enough, is the dip. This is a note you fall off of and come back to. I think of Vassar when this move comes up. Recently I put it in the fast tune by Michael Cleveland, Henryville, as taught by Kimber Ludiker at the Mike Block String Camp. That dip move was a critical spot in the tune, and it added a lot.
When I first started playing blues it was all about keeping up with the chord progression. It’s a familiar one. I’ve heard it all my life, and you have too, most likely. Then it was about improv through the changes. Finally, thanks to Joe Craven and Kimber Ludiker, I’m beginning to see the possibilities of contouring the sound I’m making to create more musical interest for the listener.
It may seem that the bluesy sound is tied to improv and cannot be used otherwise. But, I don’t see it that way. If you are fiddler who plays tunes and you want to add a bluesy effect somewhere, then, why not. Again, it’s a matter of what you want to hear coming from your fiddle.
If Eileen Ivers can put a huge blues wail into Rights of Man, you can do in, well, Spotted Pony, Liberty, or Bilem Cabbage Down. Or, Ashoken Farewell, or Westphalia Waltz. Or, Road to Lisdoonvarna, the Kesh Jig, or any tune that you feel could use a little variation in the program. Faisez le bon tone roulez.